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Class 6(66)

Pantera: Cowboys from hell

31/12/10  ||  Habakuk

Introduction

I believe the first time I heard this album, or rather the title track, was in some hawker shop in Italy. I must have been 14 or so. So, technically I’ve known this CD for a long while – but after my initial enthusiasm and buying “Cowboys…” and “Vulgar…”, they just kind of started collecting dust while I moved on to other stuff. I recall I actually missed a Pantera gig because I didn’t quite feel like going. Well, see where that got me. Impulse-buying “Far beyond driven” last year got me back on track though, and by now I can say I’ve officially rediscovered my love for not-really-early-but-you-know-what-I-mean Pantera. And here’s why:

Songwriting

8.5. “Cowboys from Hell” was breaking new grounds for the band in terms of style, and at the same time kicking open musical gates for the whole genre. From a heavy thrash base that is said to be “stolen” from Exhorder (whatever that’s worth, although the ‘horder are fantastic) and the hardly noticeable old Pantera’s classic metal influence, the band derived an almost experimental, brutal but varied sound that branched out into all sorts of directions – from fast shredders to slamming, slower numbers, including odd but working grooves, atmosphere changes (“Cemetary gates”, “Message in blood”) and generally a high degree of creativity. It comes with the varied nature of this disc that most people would probably not enjoy everything on the same level (myself included), even though I wouldn’t consider any material “filler”. If you’re looking for a full-on thrash album for example, you’ll find about 4 or 5 tracks only to match your expectations. However, once you open up for some differences to known standard patterns, the whole thing turns into a very rewarding listen.

Production

8. A good production job, and definitely with more edge than most contemporary albums. It sounds crisp and transparent, plus reasonably punchy at the same time. Check out the visual equalizer and you’ll find that the low mids are practically non-existent, which gives a alot of space for the kick drums while the trebly bass and Dimebags’s guitars battle it out in the upper regions together with Vinnie’s snappy snare and cymbals. No match for newer albums in terms of heaviness, but definitely a skilled and enjoyable mix.

Guitars

10. Dimebag Darrell put out a hell of a one-man show on “Cowboys from Hell”. For a long time I’ve been almost actively refusing to see what made him so great, as I was more into standard thrashing, but it’s actually not so hard to find out: In his playing he combines blunt, slide-over-the-fretboard style riffs with unbelievably tight, razorsharp shredding. Combine that with masterful timing, and put these elements into pretty much every song, and we have a perfect performance. I wanted to add Dimebag’s southern-inspired playing style, but to be honest, I can’t find it on “Cowboys…” yet. It’s more like a precursor to the weird, sludge-meets-pinched-harmonics riffing (like the verse in “Be demons be driven” on the follow-up) can be kind of foreboded in certain parts. The actual playing on here is still quite straightforward metal, yet very versatile at that. A few editing tweaks like the call-and-response channel switch on the title track (0:34) just add to the brilliance – most of this material stands for itself, as the unstoppable headbang-inducing riffs in “Heresy” (3:30) “Domination”‘s monster breakdown with impeccable leadwork (3:51), or the sheer drive in “Clash with reality” (0:54) should showcase.

Vocals

8. Admittedly a bit of a mixed bag here, but overall still quite cool. Phil Anselmo hadn’t gone full-on tough guy jockster here, although the direction was clear: “Testosterone for the win!” – and he was quite the guy for that. However, he still put in some high-pitched heavy metal squeals that made it over from the band’s early days, the obvious example being “ShattEEEEEEEered”, but other tracks as well. Don’t get me wrong, these vocals are well-done, just a bit of an 80s leftover and obviously not everyone’s cup of tea. Once you’ve grown accustomed to them though, they actually are part of the fun. And in the end, there is no other singer imaginable for the Pantera the world got to know from “Cowboys…” onwards anyway. Anselmo is a perfect fit, like it or not.

Bass

7.5. Considering there is only one guitarist, Rex Brown is actually not as much in the foreground as one might think. That came with later albums when the band moved away from double-tracking Dime during most (not all) lead sections. On this record here, Rex is still a bit overshadowed by the mighty Riffenstein in classic thrash fashion, something they obviously departed from as time went by and groove became an even bigger element of their sound. Rex’ sound and playing can be made out though, and they’re both quite high class – after all, he made it work in live performances as well, and I hear Pantera had always been quite the killer act on stage.

Drums

8. Vinnie Paul is a master of the groove with a great sense of timing (“Psycho holiday”), perfect double bass flow and the potential for awesome, creative cymbal work (listen to his Ride work on “Heresy”, (3:30) and tell me that isn’t the definition of brilliance). It’s his performance and skill that completed Pantera as the monster of heaviness it became known as. I hold in high regard that his playing never turns into pure show, but holds very subtle details that make it great. My only problem is that he doesn’t go as fast as he should from time to time. The buildup into “The art of shredding” (0:55) just begs for furious thrashing, but instead it gets held back by a sort of jumpy groove. Why, oh why? That sort of weird combination is something that became even more apparent in the course of their career, but I guess that’s the price for becoming “groove metal”, whatever that is. A crying shame, if you ask me.

Lyrics

8. Behind the violent tough guy spitting lie some dark, rather introspective lines, from drug-related to social commentary. Except for the awesomely themed tongue-in-cheek title track (“You see us comin’ and you all together run for cover!”), you actually won’t find any of the hard-ass lyrical content that Pantera seems to be known for. “RE- / SPECT / WALK” this is not. I approve.

Cover

5. A pretty lame photo montage. I can’t think of any cover that features the respective band members and actually looks good. Exodus? Tankard? Pantera? Nope, nada. And those are just the bands I actually like.

Logo

8. I gotta say I dig the in-your-faceness. It’s not exactly special, but it sure looks mighty fine. When you think of it out of context, it actually depicts quite the gay band name , so they really made the best of it here (remember the “Metal Magic” cat…?).

Booklet.

6. Call me out on this one if I tell you bullshit, but I believe it features the lyrics in a sort of handwriting collage. When this review gets published, I’ll be back where my actual copy lies, but for now, you’ll have to rely on my fading memory. Oh yeah, the disc itself is completely pink. It really is.

Overall and Ending Rant

Look, you haven’t heard this? Go find your nearest Italian hawker shop immediately. E-to-the-ssential this is. If you want to understand anything about metal’s development from the blistering 80’s until today, you cannot go past this album. It turned so many heads around that its effect cannot possibly be estimated. And even though many bands didn’t really profit from attempting to create what the Texans achieved here, that is in no way Pantera’s fault. For them, their style always worked.

9

  • Information
  • Released: 1990
  • Label: Atlantic Records
  • Website: www.officialpantera.com
  • Band
  • Phil Anselmo: vocals
  • Rex Brown: bass
  • Dimebag Darrell: guitar
  • Vinnie Paul: drums
  • Tracklist
  • 01. Cowboys from Hell
  • 02. Primal concrete sledge
  • 03. Psycho holiday
  • 04. Heresy
  • 05. Cemetary gates
  • 06. Domination
  • 07. Shattered
  • 08. Clash with reality
  • 09. Medicine man
  • 10. Message in blood
  • 11. The sleep
  • 12. The art of shredding